Alaska’s vote tests Trump’s influence, Palin’s bid and a new election system

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ANCHORAGE — Sarah Palin’s bid to become a member of the U.S. House, Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s bid to retain her Senate seat and Donald Trump’s influence on both of their races will be tested Tuesday in two simultaneous elections in Alaska — with voters casting ballots under unusual new relationship.

On one side of the ballot paper, Alaskans will vote in a three-way special election to fill the remainder of the House term left open by Republican Don Young, who was the chamber’s longest-serving member until his sudden death in March. The 45th president has endorsed Palin, a former governor and vice presidential candidate, over fellow Republican Nick Begich III and Democrat Mary Peltola. The election will be the first in Alaska to use a ranked-choice system that voters adopted in 2020.

In a traditional voting system, voters choose only one candidate. With ranked choice, they rank candidates in order of preference. This is how it works. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Definitive results likely won’t be determined for at least two weeks. State election officials say they won’t begin counting second ballots and redistributing votes until the absentee ballot deadline, and political observers see a race without a running mate.

On the other side of the ballot is Murkowski’s Senate primary, where she faces Trump-endorsed Republican Kelly Tshibaka, a former Alaska state government department commissioner. Throughout the primary season, Trump has sought to oust Republicans across the country who he perceives as hostile to him. After Murkowski voted against Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018, Trump sharply attacked her and predicted her political demise.

Unlike in 2010, when Murkowski lost the Republican primary to a tea party candidate and won the general election only after a write-in campaign, she is favored to advance Tuesday to the November general election. That’s because of Alaska’s new open primary system, in which all 19 U.S. Senate candidates appear on a single, nonpartisan ballot, with the top four moving on to the November ballot.

Murkowski, Tshibaka and Democratic Party-endorsed Pat Chesbro, a retired principal and school superintendent, are considered the frontrunners to advance, creating a relatively low-drama primary.

“There’s not a lot of anticipation as to whether Lisa Murkowski is going to advance or not,” Murkowski said in a phone interview Sunday from outside Fairbanks, where she was between a renewable energy fair and a dip in a pool at a local hot springs resort. “So, it has a different feel.”

The race to replace Young has been livelier.

Palin surprised many Alaskans by running at the last minute for her first election since her failed vice presidential bid in 2008, and since her decision to step down as Alaska’s governor a year later.

Forty-seven others also registered to run in the special primary election in June. They included the Anchorage newspaper’s garden columnist, a halibut fisherman in southeast Alaska and a man named Santa Claus – who lives in the town of North Pole.

Palin, Begich and Peltola advanced for the general election, along with left-leaning independent Al Gross. But Gross dropped out shortly after, leaving the other three as the only candidates on Tuesday’s ballot.

The three finalists in the special election are also candidates in the House primary for the general election in November. That race appears on the same side of the ballot as the Senate primary in Tuesday’s vote. The top four in the Primary election in the House go on to November.

With the new ranked-choice system used in the special election, voters state their top preferences for candidates. Unless a candidate receives more than half of first-choice votes — in which case that candidate will win outright — state election officials will remove the third place from contention. Your voters’ second choice will then be transferred to the two remaining candidates.

Although there have been few polls on the race, strategists in the state say they expect the most primary votes to go to Peltola, a former state legislator who would be the first Alaska Native member of the state’s congressional delegation. While Alaska leans Republican, Begich and Palin are likely to split the conservative vote, they said.

Palin, whose campaign has pushed for “energy independence” and lobbied attacks on President Biden, held a meeting with Trump at a packed Anchorage arena last month. Since then, she has not announced any public events in Alaska and has highlighted the support of national conservative figures such as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Palin spoke earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, and she blasted the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club last week.

Palin campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment. Begich was quick to highlight her absence from events in Alaska.

“Her track record is really about making a case for herself — not for the state, not for those around her, but really about building her personal brand,” said Begich, a nephew of Democratic former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and a grandson by Nick Begich, a Democrat who held Alaska’s congressional seat until his plane disappeared in 1972.

Palin, meanwhile, has taken her own shots at Begich, making some conservatives anxious: The negative campaigning by the two Republicans risks costing them each other’s second-choice votes, analysts say, making Peltola more likely to be elected.

“You want them to see their second choice as someone they can live with. You can’t make the second choice someone they would never vote for, said Sarah Erkmann Ward, an Anchorage-based GOP strategist. If Peltola wins the special election, she added, “Republicans will have a collective moment where they have to rethink their strategy.”

Peltola’s campaign, meanwhile, has focused more on local issues, such as falling salmon in some of Alaska’s rivers, and she touts her background as a fisheries manager.

She responded to attack ads linking her to Biden and raising gas prices by joking that residents of her rural home region of Southwest Alaska would be happy to pay $5 a gallon, since prices there have been significantly higher.

However, Peltola has also emphasized her support for abortion rights, and her volunteers have been calling independents and moderate Republicans — especially women — in an effort to take away first- and second-choice votes.

The Alaska election is the latest in a series of special US House elections held in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion. Democrats and partisan analysts said they have seen signs of more democratic optimism about the midterms in the special election results. But they acknowledged that Biden and his party continue to face significant political headwinds.

While Alaska-based operatives across the political spectrum say Peltola has a realistic chance of winning Tuesday’s election, national party arms like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have stayed out of the race so far.

Peltola, in a phone interview Sunday, called the decision “bizarre,” though she said it should tell voters she’s “just a regular Alaskan” and not a “DC politician.” Her allies, meanwhile, hope that Peltola will gain more support in the general election in November, when she will run for a full two-year term in Congress.

“It’s understandable, in a year when Democrats have been on the defensive, that they’ve been wary of investing and learning in more red states,” said John-Henry Heckendorn, a partisan political consultant in Anchorage who is working on Peltola’s campaign. “But I think it’s very clear to people on the ground that they’re missing a big opportunity if they don’t invest in this race.”

Maddy Mundy, a DCCC spokeswoman, said in a statement that ranked-choice elections could create new opportunities for the party. “We are following this race closely and look forward to seeing the final results from Tuesday’s election,” Mundy said.

If Palin is eliminated, enough of her voters are expected to rate Begich second that he would come from behind to beat Peltola, said Ivan Moore, whose Alaska Survey Research firm has done some of the only polling on the race. But if Begich, a businessman and software entrepreneur, places third, Moore said, he expects Peltola to win, because too many Alaskans have soured on Palin to rank her as their second choice.

“It will catch up to you when you get into the last two,” Moore said in a phone interview Sunday.

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